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Disrupting the Way We Think About Older Workers

AARP has always believed in the value of older workers, that they can be a genuine asset in the workplace. Now we have new evidence to back that up. In the wake of the Great Recession, we took a fresh look at data about hiring and retaining workers who are 50 and older. The AARP study, “ A Business Case for Workers Age 50+,” which came out just last month, not only confirmed earlier research but also indicated that today the case is even stronger for keeping older employees in the workforce.

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The study’s findings disrupt a number of old notions. For one thing, because of changes in how companies compensate their employees, including pay being tied more closely to performance than to tenure, older workers do not cost significantly more than their younger colleagues. In fact, older workers tend to be more engaged than younger workers, a factor that contributes directly to a company’s bottom line.

It’s not surprising that older employees bring more experience to the job, but the study also found that they actually tend to be more productive. Even in physically demanding jobs like assembly line work, older employees tend to perform better because, quite simply, they make fewer mistakes.

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Contrary to widespread assumptions, older workers not only are well versed in the use of technology — computers, tablets, social media and the like — but also are eager to learn about new technological developments in their fields so they can keep up.

That last finding is particularly significant for us at AARP Foundation, the charitable affiliate of AARP. In the area of income and employment, we focus especially on low-income people 50 and older who have been unemployed for significant lengths of time or who find, because of economic pressures, that they need to reenter the workforce. For them, acquiring new job skills is absolutely vital, and we have several programs that help them do just that. Again, it’s part of our strategy to change assumptions about the long-term unemployed and their ability to once again be productive.

We also realize that learning new skills is equally important for older workers who are currently employed. Indeed, we all have to keep up with technological advances and changes in the employment landscape. It’s no longer the case that what you learned previously will serve you for a lifetime, and this is especially true for older workers.

That’s why we have made a commitment, through the Clinton Global Initiative, to help older workers acquire new jobs skills and education that will enable them to remain competitive in jobs they already hold. In collaboration with College for America, a nonprofit college degree program specially tailored for the workplace, we are providing workers 50 and older with the opportunity to build their technology skills, pursue an associate’s degree and improve their expertise so they can advance within their companies.

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In this program’s start-up phase, we are working closely with employers in the health care and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) industries — fields where new skill sets are constantly required — to make this happen, and we will work closely with the employees themselves by providing coaching and establishing peer-to-peer learning communities for support.

This is good news both for the workers and for the companies that employ them. Many companies are already concerned about a “brain drain” — the loss of institutional knowledge and skills — as boomers reach retirement age. We and College for America are here to say to those employers that we’re going to support your older workers so they can continue to be productive, contributing members of the economic community.

Part of that support involves helping older workers understand just how valuable they are. That’s where, once again, we have to disrupt old ways of thinking, in this case the way people think about themselves. When it comes to how older workers view their job futures, we want them to realize they have many productive years ahead – the youngest boomers could easily be working for two more decades. By acquiring new skills, they can contribute even more to their organizations than they already do.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson is the president of AARP Foundation.

Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock

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